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Port Robertson: Behind the Scenes of Sooner Sports

Port Robertson is arguably one of the giants of collegiate sports in mid-20th century America, as a wrestler, freshman football coach, and long-time head wrestling coach at the University of Oklahoma.

Port Robertson
Beyond those titles, Port Robertson's greatest impact was as the school's academic counselor to every Sooner male athlete for a couple generations -- from immediately after World War II, up until his retirement in the mid-1980s. Yet his name and accomplishments are not widely known outside the Sooner State ... and, now a decade after his death, many Oklahomans may not recognize the name.

Sports writer Ed Frost has done his part to share the story of the OU athlete, coach and counselor in his new book, "Port Robertson: Behind the Scenes of Sooner Sports" published by the Oklahoma Heritage Association.

The 411 on Port Robertson

Porter Glen Robertson had a multi-dimensional career as athlete and coach. Of primary interest to InterMat would be his involvement in wrestling. Robertson wrestled for the University of Oklahoma from 1935-37, for then head coach Paul Keen, brother of legendary University of Michigan head coach Cliff Keen, who he later served as an assistant coach. As a Sooner matman, Robertson compiled a 20-4 overall record, claimed two Big Six conference crowns, and earned All-American honors at the 1935 NCAAs.

After serving in World War II -- where he earned the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his heroic participation in the D-Day invasion of the beaches of Normandy, France -- Robertson returned to Norman, Oklahoma to join the athletic department at his college alma mater, as freshman football coach for the legendary OU gridiron program headed up by Bud Wilkinson, then Gomer Jones, and as academic counselor for all Sooner male athletes -- not just the gridiron guys and matmen, but the golfers and tennis players as well -- making sure ALL went to class and stayed out of trouble, or suffered the consequences, which usually involved running the steps at the football stadium or washing dishes in the dining hall, but, for more serious situations, could also mean loss of scholarship and being told to leave school.

Wrestling fans with a sense of history may think of Robertson as the coach of the 1960 US Olympic freestyle wrestling team that brought home three gold medals from Rome ... and, as "the man who coached Dan Hodge at OU." But there's so much more. As head wrestling coach at Oklahoma for 15 seasons (1947-59, and for the 1962 season), Robertson led the Sooners to three NCAA team titles (1951, 1952 and 1957) as well as three second-place finishes, and eight straight Big Seven conference titles. His wrestlers won 15 individual NCAA titles, and five NCAA Outstanding Wrestler honors -- one for Dick Delgado, two each for Tommy Evans and Dan Hodge.

Meet Ed Frost

Ed Frost
Ed Frost has deep roots within the state of Oklahoma ... and is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. However, he spent nearly four decades teaching Russian language and literature at three different universities outside the Sooner State, primarily at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

So how did a guy who taught Russian in the Land of Lincoln, come to write a book about one of the most significant figures in the athletic department at the University of Oklahoma?

"I grew up in Hobart, a small agricultural community in Oklahoma," Frost told InterMat. "My parents both went to OU, and both were sports nuts. My dad went to Norman High School, where he played football. We went to OU football games."

"I heard tales of early athletes and coaches. Papa had been sports editor of the OU student paper. I had pictures of Jim Thorpe, Babe Ruth and other all-time great athletes in my room."

"My whole family was writers. My dad ran the hometown paper; mom was a columnist. My brother became an editor in New York City."

"I thought I would be a sports reporter," Frost continued. "I even took Theory of Football at OU as a senior, the only non-athlete in the class."

That dream was derailed by outside political forces from thousands of miles away.

"Because of the Cold War, I became interested in Russia," according to Frost. "My brother was drafted, and went into language school. I followed the same path, learned Russian, and took a 40-year detour to teach Russian."

After concluding his academic career, Frost returned to Norman to enjoy retirement ... and do what he could to rekindle that lifelong dream of becoming a sportswriter.

"'Sooner Spectator' magazine on OU sports was launched, and I was a freelance writer," said Frost. "I did 'Sooner Flashbacks' which were features on OU coaches and athletes, including Dan Hodge." Hodge, who wrestled for the Sooners and coach Robertson in the mid-1950s, compiled a 46-0 record (with more than three-quarters of those victories by fall), winning three NCAA titles, and a silver medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. He owns the distinction of being the only US amateur wrestler to have graced the cover of "Sports Illustrated" as an amateur wrestler ... and his name appears on the annual award presented to the best college wrestler in the nation.

A book comes to life

"Some of the past athletes told me, ‘Why not write a book about Port Robertson?'" said Frost.

"I never thought it would take three years to write."

Frost described how Wayne Baughman -- a 1962 NCAA champ for Oklahoma who went on wrestle and coach at a number of Olympics, then served as head coach at the US Air Force Academy for 26 seasons -- had started gathering materials for a book about Robertson. "He was able to pass along contact information -- email addresses and phone numbers -- for a number of former OU athletes, which gave me a tremendous start."

Frost's bio on Port Robertson is not your typical life story that opens with the subject's birth and concludes with his death. Instead, the book uses a unique thematic organization, featuring recollections and stories from Sooner athletes who worked with Robertson, placed in chapters with direct, to-the-point titles such as "Values", "OSU" (as in Oklahoma State), "Football", "Port-isms" (his favorite words and phrases, including his often-used endearment, "You Pea-head!") and "Steps" (referring to running the steps at the school's football stadium, Robertson's favorite punishment for wayward athletes).

"It had occurred to me to organize it with a thematic approach," said Frost.

That approach also made sense given the facts of the situation.

"So many former OU athletes had hoped a book could be completed while he was still alive," said Frost. "By the time I started work on my book, Port, his wife, his two children and most of his siblings had already passed away. In addition, most of his contemporaries were also dead. The only person still alive who saw him wrestle was Stanley Henson, who was a sophomore when Port was a senior."

(Henson wrestled at Oklahoma's fierce cross-state rival, Oklahoma State, in the late 1930s, where he suffered just one loss, to Bill Keas, Robertson's Sooner teammate. Henson, a three-time NCAA champ, was named top college wrestler of the pre-World War II era by both "Amateur Wrestling News" magazine and Jay Hammond's book "The History of Collegiate Wrestling". A retired surgeon living in Colorado, Henson is one of the oldest surviving college mat champs, along with John Harkness, 1939 NCAA 175-pound champ for Harvard.)

"A lot of the guys I talked to had so many stories to tell," said Frost. "It made sense to let them share these memories Port that way."

When asked to share his favorite story about Port Robertson, Ed Frost did not hesitate.

"The story about the two football players challenging Port to a wrestling match. I got that one from at least fifteen guys," said Frost, describing an incident involving two Sooner gridiron stars of the late 1950s, Bobby Boyd and the late "Wahoo" McDaniel, both who went on to play in the NFL, with McDaniel also having a pro wrestling career. The two had skipped classes repeatedly, and, refusing to run the huge number of steps that had added up from the multiple violations, challenged the former wrestler and current mat coach -- by then, in his mid-40s -- to a tag-team wrestling match. The results were disastrous for Boyd and McDaniel, hilarious for the reader.

Relevant beyond Soonerland

A reader need not be an Oklahoma Sooner sports nut to appreciate "Port Robertson: Behind the Scenes of Sooner Sports" ... though, as author Ed Frost told InterMat, "If you're an OU fan, you ought to know Port Robertson." That said, Frost provided number of reasons to read the book, starting with reasons relevant to wrestling fans of any age and alma mater.

From left: Port Robertson, Dan Hodge (in robe) and Gordon Roesler, 1956
"Robertson was a colossal figure in amateur wrestling for 40 years," according to Frost. "He wrestled for Paul Keen at Oklahoma, then, coached with his brother Cliff Keen at Michigan. He coached some of the biggest names in wrestling in the 1950s, guys like Stan Abel, Tommy Evans, Dick Delgado, and, of course, Dan Hodge. He coached the U.S. wrestling team at the 1960 Olympics to three gold medals, a result far surpassing anything anyone rightfully expected. He was an advocate of action in wrestling, of putting emphasis on pinning."

After citing Robertson's involvement in the great Sooner championship football teams of the 1950s, Frost then shifted to the coach's service to his country, saying, "His time in the military had a significant role in shaping who he was, especially his participation in (the invasion of) Normandy. He also actively supported the ROTC on campus, and urged his athletes to participate and serve their country."

Ed Frost's "Port Robertson: Behind the Scenes of Sooner Sports" provides wrestling fans -- and fans of all college sports -- with an inside look at the athletic programs of a major public university at the time when its football and wrestling programs ruled, thanks in large part to a physically-imposing, powerfully-built yet soft-spoken, deeply religious coach who practiced "tough love" with his athletes long before that phrase became popular. The book shares hundreds of stories from dozens of athletes in various sports; many of the stories are amusing or downright funny ... but all athletes sharing the stories say they gained valuable life-lessons from Robertson, and came to love him as a father. In addition, Frost's book has dozens of photos, including plenty of images of Sooner mat stars of Robertson's era.

This hardbound book is available for purchase on Amazon.com.

Readers interested in Port Robertson may also wish to check out Mike Chapman's book, "Oklahoma Shooter: The Story of Dan Hodge" ... and read other InterMat articles on the 1960 Olympics, and the three 1960 Olympic gold medalists Robertson coached: Terry McCann, Doug Blubaugh and Shelby Wilson.

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DAVETGC (2) about 4 years ago
Port Robertson wrestled at OU under Paul Keen, and became Cliff Keen's assistant coach at Michigan, 1938-1941, prior to World War II. After WWII, he was recommended for the position at OU by both Keens. He became the only coach to get the best of the Cowpokes, OU's biggest rival, in the Bedlam series, and earned the 1960 Olympic Coach position. Port earned his M.A. at Michigan as did his coach Paul Keen, who went on to become the Intramural Director at OU and later was elected Mayor of Norman.